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Iman in front of a cosmetics counter selling her range of make-up.
Photo: Christian SIMONPIETRI/Sygma via Getty Images

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Before Fenty: Over 100 Years of Black Makeup Brands

African Americans have been loving, and buying, makeup for generations.

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When Rihanna launched Fenty Beauty in September, she turned the makeup industry on its head. With its 40 foundation shades — the darkest of which sold out first — Fenty proved that inclusivity in cosmetics is not just ethical but profitable. By serving the customers other mainstream brands have largely ignored, Fenty generated more than $72 million in media value alone the month after its debut.

“I don’t think there was ever such an exciting launch, where a brand received that much excitement and marketing,” says Kimberly Smith, CEO and founder of cosmetics retailer Marjani Beauty. “Now people see it. There’s money to be made by making nuanced shades for women of color.”

But the enormous outpouring of support Fenty has received belies the fact that Rihanna is far from the first entrepreneur to meet the cosmetics needs of women of color. For more than a century, makeup brands have courted the black community and prospered, making it all the more curious that it took 2017’s so-called Fenty effect to confirm the obvious: Women of color enjoy makeup and are eager to buy it.

The first businessperson to successfully tap into this market wasn’t a black woman, but a black man named Anthony Overton. A lawyer who also had a chemistry degree, he opened the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Co. in Kansas in 1898. The business initially sold baking powder and other products to drug and grocery stores, but Overton recognized that women of color lacked cosmetics that came in their skin tones. The observation prompted his historic foray into makeup.

Anthony Overton, a lawyer with a chemistry degree, started the Overton-Hygienic Manufacturing Co. in 1898.
The Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Co.’s “high-brown” face powder was a hit with women of color in the early 1900s.
Photo: Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s official cultural historian, points out that access proved to be the major reason black women couldn’t get the makeup they wanted. Samuelson is also writing a book about early black makeup brands.

“Large department stores — they’re not going to stock for people of color,” he says of the early 1900s. “You have to rely on a small network of companies and mail order, so Overton develops a network of salespeople who go out and visit small stores with samples, and also you could send for it by mail.”

Overton’s “high-brown” face powder created a sensation, with booming sales in the United States and countries like Egypt and Liberia. By the time Overton Hygienic relocated to Chicago’s South State Street in 1911, the company’s sales staff ballooned to 400 and the next year went on to manufacture more than 50 products, including hair creams and eye makeup. The face powder eventually expanded beyond “high brown” to include darker and lighter shades, such as “nut-brown,” “olive-tone,” “brunette,” and “flesh-pink.” In 1920, the company had a Dun & Bradstreet credit rating of $1 million, Jet magazine reported. Ultimately, tapping into this underserved market allowed Overton, born during slavery, to join the elite.

Samuelson credits Overton with transforming the cosmetics industry for black women in every way. Most importantly, his makeup was safe, the historian says.

“A lot of formulations — some would have ground-up chalk and other things in them,” Samuelson says. “In some cases they were actually even dangerous. Overton had strict standards for salespeople and also established a chemical laboratory to test materials out and see if they were safe.”

Overton improved not only makeup formulas for black women, but also how cosmetics for them were packaged. According to Samuelson, he noticed that the few white companies that deigned to serve black customers put products for them in plain black-and-white packaging — inferior wrapping for patrons perceived as inferior. In response, Overton took care to send his products out in beautiful, multicolored containers. In addition to cosmetics, the entrepreneur entered fields like publishing, banking, and insurance. Overton Hygienic stayed in business until 1983, but during its eight-decade span, the company certainly wasn’t the only one selling makeup to black women.

Flip through early editions of The Crisis, the NAACP’s quarterly magazine, and you’ll see advertisements from Patti’s Beauty Emporium for “Brazilian toilette luxuries.” The mail-order business sold perfumes, creams, and Patti’s “La Traviata” face powder for 68 cents. But who was Patti? The name of the face powder provides a clue.

”La Traviata” is an 1853 opera by Giuseppe Verdi, and Patti was Anita Patti Brown, an African-American soprano known as the “Bronze Tetrazzini” to liken her to Italian soprano Luisa Tetrazzini. The black press also nicknamed her the “globe-trotting prima donna” due to her nonstop touring schedule. Samuelson calls Brown the Rihanna of her day.

“What Rihanna is doing is the same thing Anita Patti Brown was doing — using her fame to get these products made,” he says. “She was a great operatic concert star, but due to matters of race, she played small venues. She did have considerable name recognition and fame within the black community. She was well covered in the black newspapers.”

But her cosmetics venture fizzled out after a few years. At the time, black women entrepreneurs such as Madam C.J. Walker, Sarah Spencer Washington, and Annie Turnbo Malone achieved success by focusing primarily on hair care and just dabbling in makeup. Another man, however, would enjoy immense success with a cosmetics company that courted African Americans. Morton Neumann, a Hungarian American who grew up in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, knew that cosmetics companies marginalized black clients. Like Overton, Neumann had a chemistry background, and in 1926 he established his own business, Valmor Products Co., which largely targeted black customers. They especially took to Valmor’s Sweet Georgia Brown face powder, then available for 60 cents in colors like “tantalizing dark brown,” “aristocratic brown,” “sun-tan,” and “teezum [tease ’em] red.”

Note the colorism in one ad for the face powder. It promised a “lighter appearance in 10 seconds” and pointed out that the powder “is specially made to give tan and dark complexions the BRIGHTER attractive beauty that everybody admires.”

Hubert Neumann, 86, remembers his father hawking products to people both in and outside the black community. The businessman may have gravitated toward makeup after working for a manufacturer that sold face soap and shampoo, according to his son.

“One day somebody noticed that a lot of people in rural places don’t have access to cosmetics, and a good portion of them were black,” Neumann says.

Artists Charles Dawson and Jay Jackson made Valmor’s products stand out.
The Chicago Cultural Center organized the exhibit “Love for Sale: The Graphic Art of Valmor Products” in 2015.
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Photo: James Prinz Photography

He describes his father as an entrepreneur of all trades. Having a number of revenue streams kept him in business for decades.

“He had hair products,” Neumann recalls. “He sold wigs. He had jewelry. He sold novelties. He sold books. He sold a lot of things.”

Neumann also recalls the attention his father gave to the graphic art on Valmor products. Morton Neumann hired highly trained black artists like Charles Dawson and Jay Jackson. A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, Dawson set out to depict African Americans with dignity on the merchandise. They didn’t look like racial caricatures with funhouse facial features. Instead, they appeared well-groomed, well-dressed, and sometimes undressed — depending on the product advertised. Many ads coupled flirty-sounding products like “Hug Me Tight” sachet powders and “Hold Your Man” perfume with renderings of racially ambiguous women giving come-hither looks. Featuring ethnically indeterminate women in ads reportedly helped the company appeal to a cross section of customers. Given the thread of sexual innuendo in the marketing, however, the artists may have also drawn on antebellum stereotypes that framed mixed-race women as either sexually desirable, oversexed, or both. And the prevailing colorism of the day meant that although Sweet Georgia Brown face powder came in “tantalizing dark brown,” none of the women illustrated in the artwork ever appeared darker than a paper bag.

Valmor artists didn’t get credit for their provocative and innovative work — in pop art style well before Andy Warhol made it mainstream. But their illustrations garnered fans, including filmmaker Terry Zwigoff and the Rolling Stones. Zwigoff traveled to the Valmor offices in 1974 to acquire some of the artwork. Four years later, the Stones imitated Valmor’s ads for its Some Girls album cover. Samuelson might just be the biggest fan of Valmor’s merchandising. In 2015, he curated the Chicago Cultural Center exhibition “Love for Sale: The Graphic Art of Valmor Products.” It gave the black artists behind the ads the due they didn’t receive in life.

Vinyl record sleeve of the 1978 Rolling Stones album Some Girls.
The cover art of the 1978 Rolling Stones album Some Girls was inspired by the graphic art on Valmor beauty products.
Photo: Apic/Getty Images

While Chicago companies like Overton Hygienic and Valmor dominated the African-American cosmetics industry, they did have competition from other cities. In 1923, for example, two white, Jewish chemists — Morris Shapiro and Joseph Menke — opened Keystone Laboratories in Memphis. The men later split up, and Shapiro launched Lucky Heart Laboratories in 1935. A vintage Lucky Heart ad noted that “Lucky Heart Cosmetics are not sold in stores, only by Representatives.” It was a polite reference to the department-store racism that barred black products and people. Brands like Lucky Heart relied on sales reps, often ordinary community members, to show the cosmetics “to friends, neighbors, people you know at work, church or in social groups.”

Both Keystone and Lucky Heart are still in business today. They primarily sell hair and skincare products, with some relics of the past, such as Lucky Heart’s beauty bleaching cream. Lucky once offered makeup products like tint cream and a Color-Keyed Cosmetics line. However, another Memphis cosmetics business, the Hi-Hat Company, prided itself on offering “smart shades for every complexion.” Hi-Hat’s Jockey Club face powder came in hues such as “Harlem tan,” “Spanish rose,” “chocolate brown,” and “copper bronze.”

As the civil rights movement sparked social change that led to the desegregation of makeup counters and higher incomes for black families, the niche businesses that served women of color began to compete for customers with mainstream brands like Maybelline and Avon. In fact, Avon began using black models in its Ebony magazine ads in 1961, according to Susannah Walker’s book Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women. The book points out that during the five years that ended the 1960s, a half-dozen cosmetics lines for black women debuted. One of them, Flori Roberts, bills itself as the first such line that department stores carried.

Patrice Grell Yursik, creator of the beauty blog, knows the brand well. “I’m from the Caribbean, and I’ve used Flori Roberts, which was a white woman who made makeup intended for women of color,” she says. “Then there was Fashion Fair, part of Ebony magazine and the Johnson Publishing Company. They were historic brands that catered to women of color.”

In 1973, Johnson Publishing launched Fashion Fair Cosmetics. Fifteen years earlier, the company started an annual fashion show featuring black designers and models. But finding suitable makeup for the models always proved difficult, so Johnson Publishing CEO John H. Johnson and wife, Eunice, resolved to start their own line. According to African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary, Johnson first approached major cosmetics companies like Revlon about expanding their makeup to better serve black women, but they passed. Since the oldest black makeup brands operated by mail order, with roving sales reps to show off products, it was all too easy for major manufacturers to assume that no market for women of color existed.

Johnson Publishing Co. began hosting Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show, in the 1950s.  A makeup line followed.
John H. Johnson and his wife, Eunice, started Fashion Fair Cosmetics in 1973 after seeing how hard it was for Ebony Fashion Fair models to find suitable makeup.
Photo: Kenn Bisio/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Desiree Reid, general manager of Impala Inc., parent company of IMAN Cosmetics, says that myths about black women and makeup have circulated for years.

“They don’t wear makeup. They don’t do this. They don’t do that,” Reid says corporations have argued. “There have been myths about how we engage with makeup and what kind of makeup. They never thought of us as part of that conversation. But if you speak to any woman of color, her parents and grandparents, there was never a time where we didn’t wear makeup. I don’t remember a time where anybody — my aunt, who’s 87; my mother, who’s 80 years old — didn’t go out without putting on some powder, blush, and a little mascara.”

Major manufacturers may have dismissed the Johnsons, but the couple didn’t let the rejection deter them. They visited a laboratory to concoct makeup batches. They tried out the formulas on their models, and Fashion Fair was born. Determined to make the brand upscale, Johnson approached department stores such as Marshall Field’s, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, and Dillard’s about stocking Fashion Fair. They agreed, and by the late 1980s, more than 1,500 stores carried the brand.

In recent years the company, which did not respond to Racked’s interview requests, hasn’t fared as well. In 2015, customer complaints about a lack of inventory spawned a Washington Post piece called “What Happened to Fashion Fair? Why the Black Cosmetics Brand Is So Hard to Find.” In the article, Fashion Fair denied claims that it was closing and blamed the inventory problems on overextended suppliers.

“Availability and distribution [of makeup] has been a problem for women of color,” Yursik says. “You look at the ups and downs of a company like Fashion Fair — getting the product in a timely fashion has been a problem. Shipping has been a problem; so has lack of fulfillment at the counter.”

Zarielle Washington grew up in Tennessee, where she says women wear makeup to go to the grocery store.
Makeup artist Zarielle Washington.
Photo: Courtesy of Zarielle Washington.

Makeup artist Zarielle Washington, 32, says Fashion Fair was one of the first brands she wore growing up. She remembers sneaking on her grandmother’s Fashion Fair products and also buying drugstore brands such as Zuri, Black Opal, and Black Radiance. She’s from Memphis, where she says women put on makeup simply to go grocery shopping.

Washington calls Fashion Fair an African-American cosmetics pioneer. She knows the challenges Eunice Johnson faced to get corporations to recognize black women as consumers.

“You have to have people speak up and lobby for things and create their own,” she says. “Sometimes companies don’t want to change, and I think that’s a huge problem. Women of color around the world are being left out of the beauty sector.”

In 1994, supermodel Iman started her own makeup brand, IMAN Cosmetics, largely because she thought makeup manufacturers had overlooked all women of color — blacks, Latinas, Asians.

“If you look at the customer by skin tone, there’s a lot of overlapping,” Reid says. “You’ll find dark skin tones in Indian women, Hispanic women, so we didn’t want to break down women by ethnicity. We included everybody.”

IMAN Cosmetics partnered with Procter & Gamble in 2004 and can now be found at retailers such as Target, Walmart, Walgreens, and Duane Reade. But longtime customers remember when J.C. Penney carried the brand. Yursik is one of them.

“It’s still great,” she says of IMAN. “I really like the stick foundation. What I think is beautiful is that it increased awareness of the needs of women of color. All brands have to speak this language. We were not being looked at as a demographic. Now that’s not acceptable anymore.”

IMAN Cosmetics has been sold in both department stores and drug stores.
Supermodel Iman launched IMAN Cosmetics in 1994 to better serve the makeup needs of black, Latina, Asian, and other women of color.
Getty Images

Today, women of color also have the option of wearing foundation from mainstream brands such as M.A.C., Bobbi Brown, Makeup Forever, Nars, and Lancôme. And, likely due to the Fenty effect, Kylie Cosmetics recently debuted a 30-shade foundation line. Smith, of Marjani Beauty, says that makeup manufacturers need to offer at least 20 shades to serve a diverse clientele.

“Just adding five, six or seven shades, [customers] would have to make some compromises,” she said.

An attorney by trade, Smith started Marjani last year because she wanted to give women of color more makeup options than found at either drugstores or department stores. Marjani offers foundations from brands across the globe, including Omolewa Cosmetics, Maréna Beauté, and AJ Crimson. She says that for far too long black women essentially “became chemists at home,” mixing shades to make the right foundation for their skin.

Once they find a foundation that matches their skin tone, it may not be suitable for them, Washington says: “The brand might have too much oil or too much silicone.” She adds that finding foundation with the right undertones can still be a tricky undertaking for women of color.

Moreover, as consumers have grown more cautious about the chemicals in their makeup, women of color want “green” makeup options. But emerging makeup brands in this sector, such as 100% Pure, Tarte, and Kjaer Weis, don’t have many foundation options for women of color. B.L.A.C. Minerals does offer mineral foundation to such customers, but darker-skinned women looking for heavier coverage have been left wanting.

“To find the full-coverage foundation coming from this natural and green space — we’re not seeing ourselves reflected in it yet,” Yursik says.

Social media may change that. Reid views it as the cosmetic industry’s great equalizer. Had the technology existed decades ago, makeup manufacturers and department stores that claimed women of color don’t wear makeup would have undoubtedly been proven wrong.

“I’ve worn plenty of products that are not targeted to me,” Reid says. “We’ve always been doing this by trial and error. Now companies are looking at social media, especially Instagram and Youtube, and looking at who’s wearing their products and how much they’re spending. They’re asking, ‘Why aren’t we talking about them?’”


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